C’mon Feel the (Illi)noise

Why This Matters: Stations are undergoing ownership and affiliation changes in lively DMA No. 3, where the news goes beyond local.

No one has ever doubted Chicago’s status as a major-league news market, but what’s been going on there of late is exceptional even by the high standards of DMA No. 3. The Jussie Smollett case had much of the nation — and beyond — entranced. The polar vortex made national news. R. Kelly is based in Chicago, as is Jason Van Dyke, a former Chicago police officer sentenced to prison for fatally shooting a teen. “Our station has broken a lot of national news,” Dennis Welsh, VP and general manager of WFLD-WPWR, said.

The stations are in the news, too. WGN becomes part of Nexstar Media Group with its acquisition of Tribune Media. WLS loses its 25-game Cubs package next season, when Sinclair Broadcast Group and the MLB team debut Marquee Sports Network. WGN loses not just the Cubs, but White Sox, Blackhawks and Bulls games to NBC Sports Chicago.

And the CW affiliation is changing hands, departing WPWR, a MyNetworkTV-CW hybrid, for Weigel’s WCIU this fall.

Network-owned stations abound. ABC has market leader WLS. NBCUniversal owns WMAQ and Telemundo-aligned WSNS. CBS holds WBBM and Fox has WFLD-WPWR. Univision has WGBO-WXFT.

Comcast is Chicago’s prime pay TV provider. It and WMAQ-WSNS at times partner on community initiatives. “When we team up together, we can really help organizations make a difference,” David Doebler, president and general manager of WMAQ-WSNS, said.

Those two stations share department heads, but news is different: both WMAQ and WSNS have separate news VPs. Doebler notes the massive newsroom they share. “I bet we’ve got the biggest investigative unit in Chicago,” he said, “if not the country.”

Yet WLS is the one to beat. John Idler, president and general manager, also mentions investigative reporting. “Our I-team is exceptionally strong, the best in the city,” he said. “It’s something we’ve always done right.”

WLS invites viewers to the building for town halls, which see them share opinions on coverage.

In April, WGN posted a 1.9 rating in viewers 25-54 at 6-7 a.m., while WLS did a 0.9. WLS had a 3.0 in households 6-7 a.m., ahead of WGN’s 2.9. WLS won both English-language races at 5 and 6 p.m., with WMAQ in second. WLS took late news with a 2.2 in 25-54 and 6.7 in households at 10, while WMAQ got a 1.5 and 4.6.

The stations are hustling. WLS has its inside-Chicago Local-ish platform and WMAQ-WSNS is pushing hard on consumer investigative. Welsh does editorials for WFLD. Irika Sargent and Brad Edwards make up the new evening and late-news anchor team at WBBM. “It’s journalism as it should be done,” Derek Dalton, president and general manager, said. “They ask the hard questions and hold people accountable.”

Univision has two TV and four radio stations in Chicago. WGBO added 5-7 a.m. news in January, after premiering an 11:30 a.m. newscast last year. “It’s really exciting to be in investment stage and have two additional hours of news each day,” said Doug Levy, president and general manager.

WGN launched three podcasts in the last year. “Whether it’s covering breaking news, hard-hitting investigative pieces, critical weather updates or even light-hearted morning news banter, our goal is to inform, update and entertain,” news director Jennifer Lyons said.

News-gatherers feel right at home in Chicago. “It’s one of the most fun and dynamic markets in North America,” said Doebler. “Chicago is full of smart and educated people, and they love local news.”

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, the L.A. Times and New York magazine.